Pentagon watchdog warns that ISIS is 'resurging in Syria' after drawdown of US troops

By JAMES HOHMANN | The Washington Post | Published: August 8, 2019

WASHINGTON — This week, we've understandably focused on the threat within, but external threats to national security remain significant as well. In a sobering new report, the Pentagon's independent watchdog concludes that the remnants of the Islamic State militant group have been capitalizing on President Donald Trump's drawdown in Syria.

"Despite losing its territorial 'caliphate,' the Islamic State . . . solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria," writes acting Defense Department inspector general Glenn Fine. "The reduction of U.S. forces has decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when their forces need more training and equipping to respond to the ISIS resurgence."

Fine prepared the quarterly review of Operation Inherent Resolve, the umbrella under which the government has run anti-Islamic State efforts since 2014, in collaboration with the inspectors general from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

These are eight of the most worrisome nuggets from their 116-page report, released with little fanfare on Tuesday:

1. Field commanders worry that "the drawdown could cause U.S.-backed forces in Syria to look for 'alternate partnerships and resources' to replace the reduced U.S. support."

2. "ISIS carried out assassinations, suicide attacks, abductions, and arson of crops in both Iraq and Syria. . . . While Syrian forces carried out clearance operations in northeastern Syria to eliminate these cells, [military personnel] reported that U.S.-backed Syrian forces also have limited capacity to hold liberated areas."

3. "U.S. Central Command reported that ISIS is also active in Al-Hol, a sprawling [refugee] camp in northeastern Syria where thousands of ISIS family members now reside, and ISIS is likely working to enlist new members from the camp's large population. . . . Minimal security at the [camp], where 45,000 ISIS supporters and family members reside, created conditions for ISIS's ideology to spread uncontested."

4. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S. partner, has detained 10,000 Islamic State fighters, including roughly 2,000 foreigners. They are being held in "pop-up prisons" in northeast Syria, but the SDF lacks the ability to indefinitely detain these fighters. Dealing with this problem is complicated by the unwillingness of many countries to repatriate their citizens who are being held in Syria as ISIS detainees.

5. Despite the improving capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces, the Islamic State continued to rebuild in remote territory, which is harder to secure. And the Iraqi army lacks enough troop strength to maintain security in areas that have been cleared of the Islamic State.

6. Citing "imminent threats" from Iran and its surrogate Shiite militias, the State Department ordered the departure of all nonessential personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil. The absence of these staffers has "eroded" and "hindered" the ability of the department "to carry out stabilization activities in Iraq."

7. "Due to an increased need to monitor Iranian activity and other priorities, the Coalition reduced the number of [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets available for countering ISIS."

8. While estimates vary greatly because the group has gone underground, the local task force believes that the Islamic State probably retains between 14,000 to 18,000 "members."

The delta between these ground truths and Trump's mission-accomplished rhetoric is stark. At a Cabinet meeting on July 16, for example, the president patted himself on the back. "We did a great job," he said. "We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we're rapidly pulling out of Syria. We'll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems - along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We're 7,000 miles away."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that, while he hasn't read this report yet, the administration is mindful of what has and has not been achieved. "I'm sure it's the case that there's pockets where they've become a little stronger," he told reporters, per CNN. "I can assure you there are places where it's become weaker, as well."

The United States never had more than about 2,500 troops deployed inside Syria, and most stayed far from the front lines. There were blessedly few American casualties. But the boots on the ground provided a bulwark against Syrian government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and deterred Russian and Iranian incursions into eastern Syria.

Then Trump announced in December that he was ordering the full withdrawal of U.S. troops after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That decision was the final straw that led Jim Mattis to resign as secretary of defense. A permanent replacement was not installed until Mark Esper's confirmation on July 23. Under pressure from military brass and Republican allies on Capitol Hill, Trump backed off his initial intention to precipitously withdraw all personnel.

The military presence has been cut to somewhere around 1,000 troops now. The Pentagon declines to reveal the exact number. 

Brett McGurk also resigned in protest as the U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State. McGurk who, like Mattis, has gone into exile at Stanford University, said this new I.G. report "should be taken seriously."

"It concludes that Trump's ordered withdrawal of forces came at the worst possible time and has decreased resources needed to complete the mission," McGurk tweeted. 

Finally, some good news: U.S. negotiators appear to have successfully headed off, at least for now, what could have blown up into a full-scale crisis in the region: "A Turkish military offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters appeared to be averted as the United States and Turkey announced Wednesday that they had agreed to 'address Turkish security concerns' and work together on the establishment of a 'safe zone' in northern Syria," The Washington Post reported. "But statements released by the two governments, using virtually identical language, contained little detail about what exactly had been agreed upon. Critically, the statements, released by the U.S. Embassy in Ankara and Turkey's Defense Ministry, did not say whether the thorniest issue - the size and complexion of the safe zone - had been resolved."